Among the trauma and the bullshit: Thoughts of a black social worker
The candid voice of someone on the sharp end of personal and institutional racism.
Illustration: Jazz Thompson
I’m a Black British social worker with over six years experience, and I am now waiting to escape from my role working with children and adolescents in Bristol. Why? Because of racism. The usual destructive shite that pushes competent and passionate Black and Minority Ethnic (BAME) clinicians around the therapeutic circuit until they eventually burn out. I’m 29, I have a long time before I’m allowed to burn out. I wonder how many more times I must do this throughout my career.
It’s an odd position for me. I am all too aware that racism is entrenched in all aspects of society and workplaces, but despite this, I had higher expectations of my colleagues. These colleagues are social work professionals and therapists. Ethics, morals and self-reflection should be the foundations of such occupations. However, I wasn’t expecting my colleagues to not be racist. Anyone can hold prejudices or racist beliefs. I was expecting a better response to racism as therapeutic professionals.
‘Diversity’: rhetoric to reality?
Organisations such as the Runnymede Trust have highlighted the persistence of racism in the workplace, despite PR pronouncements from organisations that may be to the contrary. In their January 2017 report, ‘Bristol: a city divided?’, they surveyed BME employees and found that “participants highlighted the way in which workplace culture itself is not a neutral space and can ‘embody systemic institutional, social and cultural racism’.”
I’m wary of detailing the actual incident I experienced and what came after this. Although racism within workplaces, in my experience, tends to follow a similar cycle: White professional is racist. BAME professional, and hopefully some of their white colleagues, are understandably offended and challenge the racism. White professional becomes fearful and angry at the sheer audacity that they could be considered racist and seeks to shut down all dialogue around this. BAME professional continues to challenge the racism. (Black people and people of colour have been experiencing racial discrimination for centuries. We don’t need to be told if something or someone is or isn’t racist. We’re the experts here, trust us.)
White professional reluctantly agrees to engage in dialogue, but only on their terms. White professional denies any racism took place and cries. The institution rallies to protect their white colleague from what they feel is the undeniable trauma of having their racist actions challenged. The narrative of the “emotional and confused black person” who has merely misunderstood is introduced. The BAME person continues to struggle with the racism-induced stress, and either remains in the organisation in a very isolated state, or seeks new employment at the earliest opportunity.
The oppressive experience is exacerbated further by the organisation reinforcing the following key points. The instigator of the racism expresses their distress at the BAME person being visibly upset. Dependent on the levels of ‘white fragility’ – a severe discomfort from white people in being confronted about racism and race issues – this progresses to a narrative of the BAME person being aggressive and scary, and the instigator feeling intimidated. Consequently, the BAME person is told that raising their concerns of racism is not helpful for team dynamics and to stop discussing it.
Now, it’s not like I’m out to label white people as racists without cause. There are enough racists. It really doesn’t benefit us BAME people. I believe an open discussion, wherein the person who instigated the racism can reflect and learn is the best approach, though sadly not followed in my experience.
I am exasperated by this cycle, despite having a certain level of resilience when dealing with overt racism. Discussing my experience with other Black people has at times left me disillusioned. The response is often “This is to be expected, now keep your head down and get out.” If I’m honest, I have often been guilty of this outlook. However, I allowed the passion for my career, a caring and therapeutic one, to raise my hopes and expectations.
From edition 15, OUT NOW!
My frustrations relate not only to the initial racist incident, but to the ongoing cycle that focuses on supporting white fragility as a priority. With the focus on protecting the instigator of the racism, who is now considered the victim, I was left with depression, anxiety and feelings of humiliation and isolation. One of the most oppressive feelings was the insistence on silence. To not discuss the incident, to deny that this had happened.
Most of us have the same aim here. Most white people don’t want to be racist, or at least don’t want to be labelled racist. Black people and people of colour don’t want to be subjected to racism. Radical idea, what if we worked together? White people, examine your privilege, challenge innate prejudices and call out racism. This decreases the chances of you being racist or being called racist. If we allow it to happen, racism can be pointed out and awareness raised. This is not to label people as a despicable racist, but in fact for the complete opposite reason – to decrease racism and build a better workplace and beyond.
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I read this article with such dismay at the reality for a number firstly through the eyes of my own context which is who someone black South African and within her general age band. What I found troubling is that her experiences are those that unfortunately to say mirror those of South African employment sometimes when someone black works within a professional sense. On the flip side, I can say its a legacy of Apartheid and its practices. I don’t know what’s holding people back here? Is this more insidious as it seeks to silence people through the threat of ostracization and ultimately employment? The stifling effects of this reality as the article suggests are depression, anxiety etc. In the long term, however, the effects could be worse for the respective individual and broadly for their entire family as BAME minority face greater unemployment rates(https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/ethnic-minority-report-theresa-may-unemployed-black-asian-bame-conservative-conference-a7979511.html) anyhow beyond needing to deal with further barriers within the workplace.
Anyhow, I find this truly sad. Keep your chin up! I hope you find a better place to work soon.
I love this article. I am also a social worker (locum) and have had these same experiences. It further hurts to see those racist views and practices used on service users of colour. For example, a black parent being told she was not promoting her child’s cultural needs because her house looked like the social workers home with leather chairs and wooden floor. The worker said she was expecting something different. Another was a referral about the child coming to school too oily and another referral about a child sucking air through their teeth often (black Caribbean child kissing his teeth). I have walked into an office with everyone ignoring you. I was for help for a case and not one person looked up even when you went directly to their table. Not a hello or good bye. For this reason I returned to working in London. Whilst not racism free, it was a lot less than working in Kent Children Services.